Relax Sunday liquor sale laws

A long-standing rule in Chicago prohibits the sale of alcohol before 11 a.m. on Sunday, but the City Council is debating an ordinance that could end the ban. The law cuts into profits, is arbitrary and impedes commerce.

Alderman Pat O’Connor (40th Ward) proposed extending the liquor sale hours on Sunday to 8 a.m. to help grocers generate extra income. The original rule is a relic from the days of blue laws, which barred businesses from operating on Sundays in deference to religious services.

The ordinance has met opposition from politicos such as Chairman of the License and Consumer Protection Committee Alderman Emma Mitts (37th Ward), who said extending hours would encourage drinking and strengthen liquor stores’ foothold in neighborhoods, according to Chief of Staff Bettye Pulphus.

Another argument against the ordinance is that certain bars in the city are open until 5 a.m. on Saturday nights, and the city needs a “cooling-off” period after those bars close before alcohol becomes available again. But bars open until 5 a.m. are not overly common in Chicago—most bars in the city close between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.—and patrons who stay out late are unlikely to be awake at 8 a.m. to buy alcohol.

If the city really wants to reduce alcohol abuse rates, it should address the root causes of alcoholism. Rates of alcohol consumption are directly related to neighborhood poverty and unemployment, according to a 2010 National Institutes of Health study. So instead of enforcing a law based on religious tenets, city officials should focus on improving neighborhood conditions.

However, Mitts has a point that liquor stores could become more prominent in neighborhoods if they are allowed more hours. Future drafts of the ordinance should stipulate that only large grocers that make a percentage of their profits from liquor sales would be allowed to vend at 8 a.m. That restriction would prevent specialty liquor stores from opening early, instead allowing residents to pick up alcohol while grocery shopping without making a second trip. The liquor stores would not lose sales, but the shoppers would also be able to buy liquor on their grocery runs. Specifying the type of stores that can extend their hours would offer a compromise with the opposition.

Blue laws are a holdover from a more religious time, and the laws should serve people’s actual needs, not impose an idealized version of what those needs are.